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JORDAN PEELE - The Guy Is So Funny, It's Scary. Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Posted By Chris Green, Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The post-studio era of Hollywood filmmaking can claim a select but distinguished tradition of sketch comedy pioneers who went on to significant acclaim as feature filmmakers, a group that includes Mike Nichols, Ben Stiller and both sides of the Mel Brooks/Carl Reiner duo. Readers are free to speculate precisely what makes sketch comedy such fertile ground for creatives who ultimately find their fullest expression on the big screen. If we had to guess, we’d hazard that the tight control over every aspect of production that short-form storytelling requires simply provides an accessible early model for discovering and executing a great idea. If you can do it in four minutes, who’s to say you can’t do it in 90?

We don’t want to jinx his chances at joining that select group; at this point, he’s only got a pair of produced features to his credit. But Jordan Peele is looking like an awfully good bet to become the next essential filmmaker to emerge from the sketch trenches.

The specs all check out. By the conclusion of the five-season run of Key & Peele on Comedy Central, Peele and partner Keegan-Michael Key were widely hailed as the finest pure sketch comics of their day, capping their show with a deserved Emmy Award for Outstanding Variety Sketch Series. His first feature, 2016’s Keanu, was essentially an extension of his television work, featuring Peele and Key in onscreen roles and director Peter Atencio behind the camera. 

  Producer/writer/director Jordan Peele (standing) on the set of Get Out with cast
  members (from left) Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Allison Williams
  and Daniel Kaluuya. 

It’s fair to say that no one saw the next step coming. Whereas most of Peele’s sketch-to-movies forebearers—Nichols being the chief exception—continued to lean on their established chops and expand their comic sensibilities to the bigger screen, Peele took a sharp left turn toward his earliest passion, horror films. Moreover, for the first time, he stayed behind the camera, making his feature directorial debut without the help of his own onscreen skills. Whatever questions may have lingered over those choices, they were resolved by the time the lights came up. A pitch-perfect synthesis of horror and social satire, shot through with his sketch work’s characteristic attention to genre detail and unsparing insight into the racial tensions of 21st century America, Get Out opened to universal critical praise and sensational box office, becoming 2017’s first must-see, word-of-mouth movie phenomenon.  

Already, audiences are bracing for the next salvos, appetites whetted by the announcement of a planned slate of features from Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, promising to tackle social issues through the genre-film lens. In that effort, he’ll have the continued backing of his Get Out company partners, Universal Pictures and fellow PGA member Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions. Readers can look forward to hearing more about it during Peele’s headlining “Conversation with” session at the 2017 Produced By Conference, a discussion moderated by outspoken fan and TV legend Norman Lear.

So, before you came out here, what did you think a producer did? What was your idea of what a producer was?

I still don’t know that I know the answer to that question. [laughs] But I thought a producer was the person who provided the money for a film. And I knew from the Oscars that the producers accept the award for Best Picture, so they must be important. It wasn’t until coming here that I realized there’s a wide spectrum of types of producers and producorial responsibilities. And now, to me, it’s sort of code for “make the project happen, and make it better.”

Hey, that’s about as good a one-sentence summary as we’ll ever print. So early on, who did you see doing the job of producing that made you think, “This is an effective way to work,” or, “This is the guy that’s making it happen?”

Well, we had great showrunners, Jay Martel and Ian Roberts, at Key & Peele. At the time, Keegan and I were just starting out as producers ourselves, so it was a very symbiotic relationship.

Even before that, on MADtv, there was a guy named Dick Blasucci. I really, really liked him and his producing partner at the time, Lauren Dombrowski, who passed away maybe 10 years ago of breast cancer. She and Dick were probably my biggest mentors as a producer. But Lauren and I had even more of a connection and friendship. Just on a personal level, she’s the one who helped me quit smoking. She saved my life. But also she was someone who I felt genuinely supported the artistry that I was trying to bring to the table at that show. And I think that was tied up in her having a certain anti-establishment sense, which I think is an important producorial quality, because the best projects are always the ones that are pushing boundaries of some sort. She was somebody that really cherished the artist and the craft.

How did you internalize those values and bring them to the work you wanted to do? Key & Peele clearly wasn’t conceived as “just another sketch show.” There was intent to it. How did that intent push the show towards what it was going to be?

I think sketch is one of these art forms where if you’re not pushing the boundaries, you’re not doing it right. It needs to earn its “shortformedness.” Sketch is a temporary thing, and that sort of opens up the door to take big swings, to push into areas that seem uncomfortable and still make it work.

Key & Peele was about satisfying what I wasn’t getting (or what I never got) from the MADtv process. MADtv wasn’t my show. It was somebody else’s show. And so there was this feeling of needing to fit my comedic sensibilities into “the box,” the format.

So by the time Key & Peele came along I was starved to establish a more distinct comedic voice within sketch comedy. And of course we utilized the best techniques that all of our favorite shows used, from In Living Color, SNL, Mr. Show. For us, it was about boiling all of our favorite things down into what was essential about them and then taking that and applying it to what we knew worked for us.

We wanted to redefine what racial comedy was. Redefining or broadening what is thought of as the African-American identity was important to us. Because we felt like we hadn’t seen the “Black nerd” expressed in any way at all. And this was right as Obama was coming into office … I mean, he’s the king Black nerd. Looking at it from a different direction, Keegan and I also had this sense that we’d never seen a sketch show that really executed the genres it parodied with exact precision. We wanted to make absolutely sure that if we’re doing a Les Mis parody, it looks and feels like Les Mis. If we’re doing a rap video it looks and feels like a rap video. Our director Peter Atencio really helped us cultivate that and realize that vision.

He took each sketch as its own short film. Our whole plan from the very beginning was that we wanted this to be like the holodeck [from Star Trek: the Next Generation]. It had to be a sketch comedy holodeck. When we walk onto the set, we want it to look and feel like we’re in that world, in that genre. So that was an ideal we came into the show with and it was the reason we picked Peter, because he’s a chameleon. He had been doing this show called The Midnight Show at UCB, where he had been working on a smaller scale but executing these high production values for that level. We were also very slick with our schedule and budget. We would design the season, from the start, as a season so that we could spot the red flags and say, “Look, we’ve got seven sketches here that will cost as much as an entire episode. So what we have to do is maybe take three of these and then fill these episodes out with sketches that are just as funny, but maybe they don’t break our back.”

So the whole process was very strategic, looking at what we could achieve and adjusting our artistic accordingly. Which is something I did with Get Out as well. Coming into it as a producer allows you to be steps ahead of the pitfalls, allows you to know how to use the monetary limitations … not to bypass them but literally use them to make the movie better.

  Jordan Peele discusses a scene with Bradley Whitford on the set of Get Out

I hear that from producers time and time again, how ultimately grateful they are for the limitations. The thing that you get when you have to scramble is better in the end than the thing that you had originally written back in the day.

That’s right. Because it’s mock inspiration, right? Basically, the more correct choices you make on a project, the better. So if you look at every roadblock or every challenge as an opportunity to make another correct choice, then those limitations become exciting. That’s the only way to do it, I believe, because it’s so easy to get caught up in the idea that something “needs to be this way.” You hit this limitation and your brain checks out or short circuits, and you get stubborn. But a lot of what improv teaches us is, “No, those can be gifts.” And, of course, the best are experts in this. I mean, I always go back to Steven Spielberg and Jaws and Bruce—the shark that barely worked but ended up bringing us the best monster movie of all time, because Spielberg was able to convert it into the terror of what was underneath the water as opposed to the horror of seeing it head-on.

Could you talk a little more about that? What were some of the “gifts” you received on Get Out?

Pretty early on in the prep process for the film we were going to shoot here in Los Angeles. We were scouting here, but then due to a circumstance we were no longer going to get the tax rebate that we were counting on. So all of the sudden, we had to change locations and go someplace that had a better rebate. Now this was a month before we were going to shoot, really three weeks or a month into prep. And almost on kind of on a whim, I chose Alabama. Because we had to make a decision. I figured, they don’t have thousands of projects there like New Orleans or Atlanta so maybe we’ll be able to get our choice of crew and everything here. It presented a whole series of challenges because the film infrastructure there wasn’t too developed, although it’s improving, certainly. But it was hard to get locations; people didn’t have any contacts. [good ol’ boy accent] “What? You want to make a Hollywood film here?” But at the end of the day, I can’t imagine having shot it anywhere else. All those square pegs in the round holes ended up shifting how I thought about the world of the movie.

Just take the house, for example. It was originally written as a mansion, with the privileged angle as more of a foreboding presence. The house was going to loom over him. But of course, we couldn’t afford the mansion. So we had a more normal house … Still a beautiful, idyllic house with a lot of space and a sense of privilege. But it doesn’t have that looming presence, and I think the movie is better for it.


Oh, completely. You’re not tipping your hand that way. The comfort that you feel in that environment is such a huge part of that first act and the setup for what’s coming.

The same thing is true for the family itself. The parents, Dean and Missy … in the original script they were more stuffy, stereotypically WASPy, less down to earth. But when Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener signed on, it helped me evolve the characters into really these seemingly warm, liberal, intellectuals. I mean, what would the film have been if it wasn’t that? 

Right, exactly. It’s so much more subversive that way.

For every single role cast, I looked at it less as me teaching the actor how to be the character I wrote and more like bringing the character and the actor towards one another. Like, what is Caleb Landry Jones’ version of Jeremy? That’s another character where the original conception was this normal sort of overeducated, cocky, preppy guy. But Caleb has this real “creepazoid” factor. So that’s when I realized, “Okay, Jeremy, he’s not the dude I originally thought. He’s more of the kid who probably tortured animals when he was younger.” So we moved towards that.

Almost all the characters were that way, I would say, with the exception of Chris and Rod. That casting was pretty straight down to exactly what I had planned the characters to be like.

Right. Well, I mean, they’re the “normal guy” anchors of the story. They’re not the ones surrounded by the genre elements that you’re playing with. But just to sort of track back a little bit and talk about the development of the project, after Key & Peele wrapped, and everyone is wondering, “Well, okay, what next?” how is Get Out where you gravitated? Because I’m sure everybody was expecting you to keep going in the comedy direction.

Yeah, well, I’ve been a fan of this genre for so long. To be honest, making horror films was my first dream before I discovered comedy. So that was always kind of bubbling up. In 2008, after MADtv, I went into this period of my career where I really got to ask myself, “So, what’s next? If I could do anything in the world what would I do?”

So in that state, I started writing a wide variety of projects, just with the goal of getting better as a writer. Those sort of gestated for awhile. After a couple of years, Get Out just sort of rose above the rest as the thing that was the most ready. So by this time Key & Peele had started. Towards the middle of shooting Key & Peele, I had a general meeting with this guy, Sean McKittrick at QC Entertainment, and I sort of pitched Get Out offhandedly. He said, “I want you to write that script. Let’s write it. We’ll buy it.”

So I wrote it, and then kind of realized halfway through writing it, “Hey, I’ve got to direct this too. No one else can do this.” So the reality of it was, knowing that this was coming and was something I really, really believed in, that was the reason I told Comedy Central, “We’ve got to end the show.” The last two seasons of Key & Peele we did one after the other. It was a grind. By the time Key & Peele was over we shot Keanu and then I went straight into Get Out. But people would always ask me, “How come you stopped Key & Peele? You were on top! Why would you walk away from that?” And my answer was always, “Well, I think when people see this movie they’re going to wish I had actually been doing this for the past 10 years.”

So how did the money
come together? Did Sean finance it?

QC took it on to fully finance it. I developed the script with them and/or for them. About eight months to a year later, they were putting their feelers out for a partner. There were several production companies that we went to. Some of them just plain didn’t get it and told us to fuck off. But Blumhouse, they really got it. It was a perfect match. I mean, what an amazing brand for a horror thriller to go out under, and what an amazing track record they have of utilizing their Universal slots and working with Universal marketing for wide release.

If it came down to it, QC was prepared to finance it. But it was a perfect strategic alliance. As soon as Blumhouse came on, their infrastructure really helped provide me with a lot of stability as a first-time director.

Something producers always talk about is the importance OF “casting the crew” and finding your department heads and finding your principals. How did you go about that process?

It came together in what I would imagine is a fairly typical way. You get a bunch of recommendations, you look at their work and you see who’s the best and who’s available. So Toby Oliver is my DP; he’s a guy who had done such beautiful work, just a great reel and very consistent aesthetic. Also, he’s from Australia, and the way they work in Australia really trains the cinematographers to work on lower budgets, so they work faster.

Interesting. Bruna Papandrea talked to us at length last year about how there’s really strong government backing for low-budget film in the Australian system.

That’s right. So one of the ways I was looking at this was that we needed to populate this movie with talent that’s better than what we can pay them. [laughs] So we found our way to Toby, who has paid his dues pretty hardcore in Australia but is a relatively fresher presence here, trying to build his U.S. portfolio. So I’m basically getting a super-experienced DP for a little bit less than what one might think we would have to pay to get somebody with that talent. The same with the production designer, Russell Smith. He’s a guy who has worked on much bigger-budget films but who was at a place where he wanted to do something smaller. So it felt like he was willing to come down a couple of steps to do this film.

That was the approach all across the board—everybody involved, along with being brilliant at what they do, was looking at some reason that they might be willing to do something a little below their pay grade, whether it was because they believed in the project, or they were looking for something like this on their resume for some reason or just because they fundamentally “got it.”

In terms of “getting it,” the tone of the film is really precise. It has to walk a fine line in terms of giving you the stuff you expect from a genre horror story, plus a kind of social commentary angle that can’t get too heavy or else you lose the fun of it. How important was it that the folks you brought on inherently understood that balance? Or is that more like something that you felt you would bring to it, given the people with enough skills to execute the thing?

It felt more like the latter, honestly. I mean that’s my role, right? And as I would continue to talk about the film in terms of what it is and what it’s not, over the course of that, people arrived at a better idea of what their role in it is. But, to be honest, there weren’t a lot of reference points I could give.

Right. I was just thinking that.

Yeah. So I can give them an idea, like, “This is The Stepford Wives. This is Scream. This is Shining. This is Halloween. This is Night of the Living Dead.” I want to take pieces from all of those things, but most importantly, I want the thing to feel real. I think the part that I knew I couldn’t necessarily count on anybody to fully wrap their head around was the proportion of thriller to comedy. If it’s one notch more comedic, it’s a totally different film. It’s a parody. And if it’s one notch too serious, then all of the sudden we have something that may just be too upsetting and hard to watch. So that balance was something that I knew I had to be very careful about.

Did you do a lot of rehearsal with your cast in terms of getting them to hit these notes? How much leeway did you give them to find their “zone,” given that you had to have a pretty good idea of the bull’s-eye you were going for?

I had conversations with all of them before we got to Alabama. They came out probably a week before we shot. There was one day and night where Catherine Keener suggested we all go to a house and just sort of get to know each other. She had done that with a project before, and it turned out to be really a great decision. Basically, we were just hanging out with the family, and you can sort of see and feel the actual dynamic between the actors develop. That continued to inform me as to who the characters were to each other. So by the time we were in front of the cameras, we had done a lot of the building of who the Armitages were. It was quite collaborative in that way, having that lead-in.

It’s got to be hugely validating, the success of this film. Stepping back a little, what do you take from the fact that, hey, it turns out the audience was actually ready for this movie and ready for this story, which is not something anyone would’ve necessarily predicted even a few months ago?

It’s very validating, very inspiring. I feel like, in the future, as a writer or a filmmaker, I can do what I did with this one, which is write my favorite movie that doesn’t exist. But also as a producer, it helps inform and validate what I’m trying to do with Monkeypaw Productions, my production company, which is to find ways to explore representation and genre, and to explore stories that involve untapped voices, untapped identities. It turns out, those aren’t crutches. They’re actually what the world wants right now. Because these are the stories we’ve been neglecting for many years.

So the big lesson for me is that you can commit to leads in films that aren’t established celebrities. You can commit to the type of stories that never would’ve been thought of as producible five years ago. And if you take those bold leaps of faith and trust your instinct and trust that the reason story is such a powerful art form is because when it’s good it’s just good, the conventional wisdom doesn’t matter. If the story is really great, people will turn out for it. I mean, you look at The Exorcist, which is maybe the most successful horror movie of all time, a massive and deserved phenomenon. And it has some of the most depraved, crazy moments in the history of Hollywood.

Yeah! It’s amazing, the parts of that film that are now ingrained in the common culture.

Exactly. And it’s because the storytelling is so perfect that it transcends what we think is “okay” or “allowed.” That’s another reason I love horror.

I have to say, your timing is weirdly perfect. I mean pretty much by acclamation, you were the best “Obama” of the Obama era. But now the Obama era is over, and just in time for the election year, you’ve moved into horror.

[laughs] That’s right. We had a laugh and now it’s time to quake in our boots.

does it mean something different to you to be doing socially conscious storytelling, whether in horror or in comedy, now as it did two years ago?

It does feel more important now. And specifically because we have an administration that used fear as a tool to get its power. To me, when that happens it means we’re in a time that’s being led by fear. And so that means we’re in an era where we need to address our fears. We need to deal with our fears. The best way to do that, for me, is horror/sci-fi/comedy. It’s with these genres where it’s expected for us to get into these uncomfortable areas and to enjoy those uncomfortable areas. To me, genre is one of the most transformative and important aspects of storytelling. I feel like the fact that we hadn’t had a horror movie about race for 50 years—let’s say, since Night of the Living Dead—isn’t just a symptom of the problem—it’s part of the problem. We haven’t been able to invite white people to see the world through the eyes of a black man who has fears. I mean, that’s empathy. That’s walking a day in someone else’s shoes. And when we don’t have that, we’re going to be coming at the conversation from two different places. We’re not going to be able to understand each other’s point of view.

Now black America has watched many films through white people’s eyes, and we cheer for Liam Neeson. We love ourselves some Bruce Willis. But the opposite hasn’t happened as much. And I think it’s important that it happens in not just dramas and slave narratives and stories we have a comfortable distance from but that it happens in fun movies that take place right now. 

- This article originally appeared in the June/July issue of Produced By magazine.

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Press Roundup: Produced By Conference 2017

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, June 13, 2017

EBONY / PGA’S 9th Annual Produced By Conference Was A Star-Studded Event
June 12, 2017 : Aramide Tinubu


HOLLYWOOD BLACK RENAISSANCE / Ava Du Vernay & Oprah Winfrey Trace Their Collaboration Journey & Discuss the Importance of Inclusivity
June 12, 2017 : HBR Media Team


VANITY FAIR / The Emmys Get a Russian Twist

June 12, 2017: Rebecca Keegan


DEADLINE / Weinstein Co.’s Glasser, Teams Behind ‘Making a Murderer,’ ’13th’ Size Up Fact-Based Boom – Produced By
June 11, 2017: Alex Ben Block

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Produced By: 'Stranger Things,' 'Arrival' Producers on Giving Voice to Talent
June 11, 2017: Gregg Kilday

REFINERY29 / This Is Why Every Episode of Queen Sugar Season 2 Is Directed by A Woman
June 11, 2017 Caitlin Flynn

DEADLINE / Norman Lear and Jordan Peele Share Love, Laughs & An Awkward Moment – Produced By
June 11, 2017:  David Robb 

DEADLINE / Shawn Levy, 21 Laps Execs Detail Company’s Dramatic Evolution — Produced By
June 11, 2017: Alex Ben Block

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER /  Produced By: Profit Participations Are a “War for the Money,” Producer Says
June 11, 2017: Jonathan Handel

SF GATE / Jordan Peele Says He’s Always Felt like an Outsider

June 11, 2017: Staff

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Produced By: 'Get Out's' Jordan Peele Confesses, "I've Always Identified as an Outsider"
June 11, 2017 Gregg Kilday 

REFINERY29 / Netflix Tells Fans They Can Chill With Those Campaigns To Save Their Favorite Shows
June 11, 2017: Shannon Carlin.

VARIETY / Jordan Peele, Norman Lear Discuss Search for ‘Common Humanity’ Through Race
June 11, 2017: Joe Otterson

THE WRAP / Norman Lear Sings the Praises of Jordan Peele’s ‘Get Out': ‘I’ve Never Been More Touched’
June 11, 2017: Reid Nakamura 

DEADLINE / Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay Trace Roots of Their Collaboration – Produced By
June 10, 2017: Alex Ben Block

UPROXX / Netflix’s New Decision On Cancellations Sparks Intriguing Reactions From Competitors And A Strange Apology For ‘Sense8’
June 11, 2017: Andrew Roberts 

DEADLINE / Execs Talk Peak TV and Breaking through with Savvy Viewers – Produced By
June 10, 2017: Alex Ben Block

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Produced By: Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay Discuss How to Create a “Culture of Inclusion”
June 10, 2017: Rebecca Sun 

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Produced By: Cast Insurance More Creative Than Writing Auto Policies, Broker Says
June 10, 2017: Jonathan Handel

VARIETY / Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay Pay Tribute to Each Other at Produced By Conference
June 10, 2017: Dave McNary

WE GOT THIS COVERED / Netflix Defends Sense8 Cancellation
June 10, 2017: Matt Joseph

SCREENRANT / Netflix Boss Defends The Get Down & Sense8 Cancellations

June 10, 2017: Molly Freeman


SF GATE / ‘Queen Sugar’ Season 2 Has All Female Directors ‘Because We Can,’ Says Oprah

June 10, 2017: Staff


THE WRAP / ‘Queen Sugar’ Season 2 Has All Female Directors ‘Because We Can,’ Says Oprah

June 10, 2017: Linda Ge

DEADLINE / ‘La La Land’ Director Damien Chazelle on Ageism and Dumb Studio Notes – Produced By
June 10, 2017: David Robb

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Produced By: Damien Chazelle Talks the Director-Producer Relationship on 'Whiplash,' 'La La Land'
June 10, 2017: Rebecca Ford

VARIETY / ‘La La Land’ Director Damien Chazelle Lucks Out, Channels Blanche Dubois
June 10, 2017: Dave McNary

THE WRAP / Damien Chazelle on How Producers Guided Him Through an ‘Arrogant’ Phase To Make ‘Whiplash’
June 10, 2017: Jeremy Fuster

DEADLINE / Ted Sarandos & No-Hugs Jerry Seinfeld Talk Cinemas, ‘Sense8’ & ‘The Get Down’ Cancellations – Produced By
June 10, 2017: David Robb

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Produced By: Hulu's Beatrice Springborn Testifies: "It's A Seller's Market"
June 10, 2017: Gregg Kilday

INDIEWIRE / Ted Sarandos, Jerry Seinfeld, and 10 Ways Netflix Blew Up the Entertainment Business
June 10, 2017: Anne Thompson 

SF GATE / Netflix Boss On The Get Down ‘Sense8’ Cancellations

June 10, 2017: Staff


VARIETY / Movie Producers Feeling More Pressure: ‘Winners, Losers Are Bigger Than Ever’
June 10, 2017: Dave McNary

VARIETY / Netflix’s Ted Sarandos Talks ‘Sense8,’ ‘The Get Down’ Cancellations
June 10, 2017: Daniel Holloway 

THE WRAP / Netflix Boss on ‘The Get Down,’ ‘Sense8’ Cancellations: ‘We Couldn’t Support Those Economics’
June 10, 2017 : Linda Ge 

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Produced By: PGA President Lori McCreary Urges Formation of Industry-Wide Security Task Force
June 10, 2017: Carolyn Giardina 

THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER / Netflix's Ted Sarandos Talks 'Sense8' Cancellation, Cannes Film Debate: "I'm Not Anti-Theater"
June 10, 2017: Gregg Kilday

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Top Ten Reasons I Haven't Yet Registered For Produced By Conference 2017

Posted By National Executive Director, Friday, June 2, 2017

The minutes are ticking down.  The speakers are gearing up.  Everyone at the PGA is in full-steam-ahead Produced By Conference mode.

Of course, there are a handful of you out there who haven’t yet registered for Produced By, which kicks off at 20th Century Fox next Saturday.  And it’s from that handful of people that we heard…


10.  I'd love to see Ted Sarandos’ session, but I really need to catch up on my binge watching.

9.  I’m too busy preparing testimony for my appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

8.  There's a session with Norman Lear and Jordan Peele.  Will I laugh?  Will I be scared?  It's just such a confusing time right now.

7.  I don't need to learn how to pitch better! Those executives need to learn how to listen better!

6.  The Producers Mashup sounds kind of dangerous.

5.  Actually, I just had Oprah, John Wells and Shawn Levy over for dinner last week.

4.  Heard a rumor that due to an accounting error, Damien Chazelle’s speaking slot should rightfully go to Barry Jenkins.

3.  A lot of really, really great guys from Russia said it wasn’t such a good idea.

2.  “Networking” is just so 2016.


And the #1 reason I haven’t registered for the Produced By Conference is…


1.  I’m afraid that my attending this year will attract too much covfefe.



Remember, Produced By sells out every year!  It doesn’t matter what your excuse is for not pulling the trigger yet… We’re one week out.  Time to get off the fence and register at!


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BRIEF ENCOUNTERS - Short-Form Content Has Come Of Age In The Mobile Era

Posted By Chris Thomes, Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Original digital short-form series have become far more prolific over the last few years. And we’re not talking about YouTube videos of kids talking to camera from their bedrooms, or mash-ups of others’ original programming. We’re talking about real, TV-level, premium content. Real shows. Real stories. Professionally produced. There’s just one difference: length.

The proliferation of mobile devices and the consumption of video on everything from tablets to phones to PCs has increased the demand for short-form, snackable programming—anything from 19 minutes down to 30 seconds. And everyone is producing short form, from Doritos and Lexus to music artists and politicians. As a result of this saturation, consumers are now starting to demand more curated, premium programming. It all comes down to the viewer’s time, or lack thereof. With so many things competing for their attention, they have grown more discerning and impatient with low quality. The true way to gain their loyalty is by making content that is simply worth their time, be it 30 seconds or 19 minutes.

Producers in this space have seen what was once the “wild west,” with no rules and few expectations, evolve into a professional community where production looks a lot more traditional, budgets are rising and talent is just as important to a show as it is in network TV or movies.

Chris Hanada of Retrofit Films acknowledges that, “digital budgets have steadily and slowly risen over the years, while at the same time filming technology has become less expensive. Visually, audiences expect that a digital production look just as good as an on-air show. From a business perspective, the standards to which we are held by studios, networks, legal, financers and guilds are just as complex as a television show at this point. The continuing convergence of digital with traditional [production] has given us the opportunity to go from being a couple of guys in a garage to producing network content relatively quickly. Since the launch of our show This Isn’t Working (ABC’s digital series created by and starring Lisa Schwartz), the meetings we’re taking now are not just for digital originals, but for television projects as well.”

Hanada’s business partner, Tanner Kling, concurs and notes that the evolution has shifted their business. “When we started Retrofit Films back in 2005, our niche was exclusively digital short-form productions, so it’s really what launched our business. Back then we were producing almost exclusively derivative series [spin-offs and side stories of broadcast TV shows, feature films, etc.] but we always knew the platform would evolve. Moving into original digital series has, of course, been more creatively rewarding and has turned out to have been a great step toward the next opportunities.”

Retrofit isn’t alone. Many producers who have been in the trenches defining transmedia content and short-form for the past several years are now growing into the grand sythesizers in this field. They are bridging the smaller-scale world of digital with the high-end production value of scripted TV.

David Tochterman and Bernie Su of Canvas Media Studio have not only been affected by the changes, they are making it their core business model. Tochterman notes, “It’s our primary focus. We launched Canvas with the intention of creating short-form scripted series that are designed for digital platforms as a first window.” Their determined focus on innovation is now merging with traditional production approaches and what is coming out the other side is a variety of short formats that all focus on high-quality storytelling. But all of these producers can agree on one thing: the art of producing remains the same as it has ever been, perhaps with the main difference being the number of hats the producer typically has to wear on smaller scale projects. 

Regarding their approach, Hanada explains, “Production is production. It’s funny to have meetings with networks or studios and explain what we did on a digital series. Then they ask us, ‘Can you handle a bigger budget?’ The truth is, we have had to wear multiple hats on these projects just to get things done – having a larger budget never intimidates us. A recent production of ours had a very high budget for digital, where it was almost comparable to an episode of television, and truthfully, it was a huge relief because we could build out a full staff to handle the nuts and bolts and we could focus on our most important job, the creative producing.”

Executive producers Tanner Kling (left) and Chris Hanada (right) of Retrofit on location in Palmdale, CA with
line producer Aaron Billet for The Off Season.

And while creative producing remains at the core of quality content, formats are changing radically, which adds another layer of complexity. Anything under 19 minutes seems to be the norm for mobile viewing.  Tochterman explains, “Episodic length and individual platform specifications vary from project to project, which is both challenging and exciting.  Every platform is designed differently, and as they refine their standards, Canvas needs to be flexible and versatile with our creative and business models.” By embracing the disruption, Tochterman and Su have become some of the top producers for premium digital short-form programming. From their scripted dramatic digital series, Vanity, to their upcoming Socio project, they are leaning into the opportunity that short form provides, focusing on creative issues, characters, and leveraging the format to their advantage by embracing short story arcs that are dramatically charged.

And that seems to be what younger, mobile-first audiences are seeking. In a Snapchat/Instagram world, millennials (and post-millennials) are finding their attention drawn to short, snappy, snackable content.  But given all the competition in the digital space, premium scripted programming is starting to stand out as a beacon for distributors looking for a way to cut through the noise and establish a beachhead with new audiences. The Television Academy saw this trend and recently created five new short-form Emmy categories specifically for scripted comedic and dramatic programs, non-scripted programs, and best actor and actress in a scripted short-form series.

Bernie Su, founder and producer,
Canvas Media Studio

David Totcherman, founder and
producer, Canvas Media Studios

Canvas certainly is taking advantage of this trend. No strangers to Emmys, Su has won two on his own for earlier digital series and Vanity was nominated last year.  This premium approach hasn’t just paid off with awards; eOne Television recently bought a stake in Canvas.  Canvas intends to use this investment to distribute, produce and finance premium scripted content for digital and traditional media, as well as emerging VOD and OTT platforms, while eOne Television will have first dibs to help produce and distribute the fare worldwide across all media. And this premium content is taking a cue from the reigning motion picture model—franchises. David Tochterman explains, “Our focus is on creating entertainment franchises.  Short-form is sometimes used purely for marketing, but that’s not our primary business.  We look at shorter form series as way to build IP value by connecting with younger, engaged audiences on digital-first platforms.”

But with all of this talk of a premium approach, keeping costs in check and managing digital productions require different thinking from traditional TV. Instead, short form tacks closer to an indie film production model, with small crews wearing multiple hats, living or dying on creative solutions to everything from production design to craft service. Retrofit’s Hanada believes that, in fact, the scale of production for digital is the essential distinction. Big crews just aren’t feasible. As quality increases, budgets will grow, but money is still very selectively targeted at key areas to increase production value. Tanner Kling explains, “Other than different guild and union rules, rates, etc., producing for this medium is just as challenging as traditional.  We still need to dot each “i” and cross each “t.”  That digital production is different or easier in some way has been one of the biggest misconceptions we’ve encountered since we started. The platform should not dictate the budget. The creative and the execution should. Often in digital, we end up backing the creative into a flat budget we’ve been given and it pains us creatively to have to cut the things that would make a show really pop. That said—I’ve yet to meet a producer that ever felt like they really had enough,” he laughs. “It’s our jobs to figure out how to maximize resources.”

Which brings us to how a short-form producer brings it all together. The producing team needs cohesion, vision and producing leadership to execute properly. Hanada notes, “The one thing that is different is that the digital projects often are more interesting creatively. You can be a bit more experimental with form and style in digital. Our cast and crew are often top-notch people and we usually can’t afford their usual rates, but they’re excited to be working on something new and fresh. It’s much easier to bring great crew on board when everyone is excited about the material. It also makes negotiating deals easier when I can tell anyone, be it in front of or behind the camera, ‘This is what I have, and it’s what everyone else is getting, so I can’t give any more. But it’ll be a good time with a good crew and we’ll make something special.’ I think everyone from the top on down sees the opportunities, and it’s a better experience and a better product when your cast and crew believe in what they’re doing and aren’t just punching the clock.”

At the end of the day, these new digital producers are excited by the new challenges and using them to their advantage in a shifting marketplace. The combination of high quality and smaller scale seems to be paying off for not just producers, but for audiences too. Making premium programming at flexible price points is the name of the game. With increasing distribution of short premium programming across mobile and OTT platforms, the investment from traditional companies into the space, and acknowledgement of the format by major industry organizations like the Television Academy, you can expect short-form to stick around for a long time.

- This article originally appeared in the April/May issue of Produced By magazine.

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BEFORE YOU SIGN THAT DEAL AT CANNES.. - Protecting Yourself Legally In The Film Industry

Posted By Neville Johnson & Douglas Johnson, Tuesday, May 16, 2017

We litigate controversies on behalf of producers, distributors, writers, actors, directors, talent, and independent film companies. We frequently sue the major studios on behalf of talent and independent producers. Here are some common sense steps you can take to protect your interests in a competitive and sometimes unscrupulous marketplace.

Get all agreements in writing. Film legend Samuel Goldwyn once said, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” That’s not true. Oral contracts are just as enforceable; they’re just much more difficult to prove. Get it in writing as best you can, as soon as you can. We have seen many cases based on handshake agreements that could have been avoided with a simple written contract. We have seen this especially in situations where one party is raising money for another, typically investment in a film. The investor is obtained, and thereafter, details of the deal become fuzzy between or among the parties because there is no clear documentation. But the truth is, a sound recording of the parties agreeing on an iPhone constitutes a writing. Voicemail can provide salient confirmation. Always confirm details and understandings of any deal with relevant parties so there is some kind of record. Send follow-up emails and letters that state the deal agreed upon, as this might later become relevant and important evidence that there was an agreement. As soon as possible, establish what the terms of the deal are: What will be the respective roles and credits of the parties? How will decisions be made? Most importantly, create a paper trail, by email and in writing. A contract will not be found binding if the essential terms of the contract have not been agreed upon. The more evidence in writing regarding these terms, the better for the individual bringing suit, often the producer.

Establish a fiduciary duty. We have seen situations where producers worked on a project, but couldn’t get it going and ultimately stopped working on it. What happens to the underlying intellectual property? Can one producer make the project without the other and if so, does the other producer get compensated? What if there arises a similar project but brought separately and subsequently to one of the producers? Is a fiduciary duty implicated in such cases? Make clear who will have what rights in such situations.

Owing a fiduciary duty means having a relationship that requires full disclosure and no secret dealings. Attorneys, doctors, accountants owe them to their clients. For partners and those in a joint venture (such as to make a movie), whether a fiduciary duty is determined as owed is a question of fact, if it is not made clear from the paperwork or other evidence. In the event of a breach of fiduciary duty, punitive damages can be assessed, and individuals can also obtain damages for emotional distress (for example, for anger, dismay or frustration).

Under California and New York law, there is no fiduciary duty for a failure to pay net profits; the damages are purely contractual. Thus, a shrewd payee will seek to have a fiduciary duty established when monies are to be collected and paid from future sales. If the producer’s sales agent or distributor wants the deal badly enough, they may agree to this term.

Define terms and penalties. We undertake a lot of litigation with producers’ sales organizations and foreign distributors. Typically, claims are made for failure to account and pay. What are the terms/penalties in such situations? Producers should consider termination rights of the distributor who fails to comply with the contract, and the elimination of future charges and fees.

Will there be minimum guarantees in foreign territories? We’ve seen situations where the producer’s sales agent did not comply, making deals below the standard. What are the penalties? Does the film revert to the producer? Is there a cure period, say 30 days? (These are typically found in agreements.)

A common complaint of producers is that a sales agent has unfairly billed up and charged costs for attending festivals and promotions for the film. Their accounting usually does not delineate the charges in detail. Producers should require that breakdown as well as determine a cap on expenses and a mechanism to challenge the same, preferably before they are incurred.

Likewise, if a slate of films is being sold in a package, a producer will want to ensure a fair allocation of the revenues and advance being paid. Unfair allocations is a common claim in disputes. A producer should make certain to be informed, comment on and participate in negotiations if this occurs.

What happens if there is a bankruptcy? In that event, the producer should require an immediate end to any agreement. This should apply to foreign distributors as well.

Establish the venue. In the event of a dispute, the venue where the dispute will be adjudicated needs to be defined in the agreement. We suggest that the city or “home court” of the contracting party is best. Otherwise, there are travel costs associated, as well as the possibility of being “hometowned,” a state of disadvantage that exists when one side and its attorneys are more wired into the local legal process than the other. The parties need to specify where the venue will be. Otherwise it will be in one of the jurisdictions where one of the parties resides—probably the one with more leverage. In international agreements, they must consider which country the dispute will be adjudicated in. The party fighting will surely argue for its country. A savvy producer will negotiate the venue for jurisdiction, including the country and the city.

Determine the forum for dispute resolution. Will it be the courts of one of the parties, or arbitration? Many contracts provide the forum and this is becoming an increasingly controversial problem. In foreign sales agreements, the Independent Film & Television Alliance (IFTA) arbitration process is commonly required. This makes good sense for the parties because it is a relatively speedy process, inexpensive in comparison to full-blown court litigation, and its arbitrators are knowledgeable about industry practices. However in IFTA arbitration, punitive damages are not allowed. Therefore if one party defrauds another, the only claim, effectively, can be for contract damages.

Contracts frequently require disputes to be heard in a confidential, binding arbitration before one provider—Judicial Arbitration and Mediation Service (JAMS)— which has offices in the United States and London, thus preventing the establishment of precedent or publication of unfavorable information. The major movie studios currently are all requiring JAMS arbitration clauses and refusing to negotiate on this. Many attorneys for claimants have surmised that this creates at least a perception of repeat player/provider bias.

Add to the forgoing the cost of arbitration, which can be enormous. Few qualified contingency fee attorneys will take such cases, and studios habitually do not provide attorneys’ fees clauses in their agreements. This assumes such an attorney is legally allowed to work on this basis. Many lawyers outside the United States may not be able to.

Additionally, discovery is usually limited in arbitrations, sometimes with only one deposition per side permitted. This disfavors claimants, who may need to depose several witnesses from the other side to create a clear picture of events.

For these reasons, having a case in a court of law may prove to be the best scenario if there is a dispute. Public trials provide unwanted “sunshine” on nefarious business practices and can intimidate wrongdoers and warn others by such exposure. They might even be less expensive. Further, if the trial court or jury “gets it wrong” there is always the possibility of a winning appeal, which is foreclosed in a binding arbitration. If the other side insists on arbitration, document their refusal to negotiate on this issue, as some courts of law may find this to be “unconscionable” and thus allow a court trial instead.

If it is not going to be an IFTA arbitration or in a court of law, and arbitration will be the forum, we recommend a provision that provides that the arbitrator will be selected by the parties and if they cannot agree, they shall each designate a third person who shall select the arbitrator.

Finally, remember that to be enforceable, the agreement must state that the arbitration is binding, final and can be enforced by any court of competent jurisdiction.

Don’t forget foreign levy monies and music publishing. My firm brought class action suits against the WGA, DGA and SAG for their failure to pay foreign levies that had been collected and not paid out. These are monies paid pursuant to the national laws in countries such as France, Germany, Brazil and many others. Ensure that these monies will be collected. (From our suits, over $200 million has since been paid out.) A producer will want to seek to exclude these monies from any distribution deal, but it’s a point of negotiation.

Likewise, the producer will want to own the music publishing rights to the soundtrack. The “performance rights”--- monies paid for television usage and from movie theatres---can be substantial. The wise producer will have an “administration agreement” with a music publisher to collect these monies throughout the world, as they will not be collected by any foreign distributor.

Consider a collection agent. Many deals involve a neutral third party, a collection agent that will collect and disburse the funds in accordance with any deal. Consider utilizing the same to ensure proper accounting and payments.

 Allow for auditing. In any contingent compensation or distribution agreement, there must be an accounting and audit provision. Ensure the right to audit or suffer the consequences, namely, the inability to know if there has been an underpayment. Get regular accountings and the right to see all relevant documents relating to any income and costs. Producers will want the right to audit directly any licensee. Additionally, producers will want to see all relevant books of any sales agent relating to any transaction, as they may be relevant to monies due. This would include the general ledger of the producer. If an error discovered in any audit is more than, say, 10% of the amount paid, consider negotiating that the other party be responsible for the cost of the audit.

Can attorneys’ fees and costs of litigation be obtained? The general rule of the United States is that the prevailing party in litigation is not entitled to attorneys’ fees and costs unless a requirement states as much in the contract. The rule in Europe is that attorneys’ fees and costs are awarded to the prevailing party. Attorneys’ fees can sometimes dwarf the amount at stake. Some lawyers work on a contingency or partial contingency basis; they may be willing to do so when attorneys’ fees are available, warranted, and collectable. For this reason, we generally suggest that an attorneys’ fees provision awarding them to the prevailing party be made in part of the contract.

There is no substitute in deal-making for conscientiousness and awareness of the legal terrain. If the deal goes sour, as so many sadly do, you’ll be glad you looked out for your interests.









 - Illustrated by Ajay Peckham


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